Extreme measures to “protect” daughters in India
Gurpreet Singh is a determined man. But he is an even more concerned father.
The 32-year-old investment adviser is leaving India and migrating to Australia. There is nothing new in that — tens of thousands of professional Indians emigrate every year.
Unlike most of them, Singh’s reason for leaving is not the pursuit of greater economic returns, but a search for something increasingly perceived by parents to be lacking in India — security for their daughters.
It was the gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi last December that jolted Singh, like millions of middle-class urban Indians, and awakened him to the brutalities women and girls face in this largely patriarchal country.
Since then he has been exposed to a torrent of daily news reports of the molestation, abduction and rape of women, and even more worryingly, of young girls, upsetting him so much that he felt he had little option but to fill in the Australian visa forms for himself, his wife and his three-year-old daughter.
“The gang rape in December was a shock for many Indians. It was just so cruel and made me wonder how anyone could do that to a woman,” he explained during a telephone conversation.
“Now there are media reports every day of little girls being abused. It makes me sick. It makes me angry. I don’t want my daughter to grow up in a society where there is no safety, no security and no respect for females.”
Many people may see Singh’s decision to leave a good job with an international bank as somewhat drastic, but when you are bombarded with report after report of girls as young as two being abducted, tortured, raped and sodomised by neighbours, school bus drivers or even family members – and left close to death with internal injuries — it may not seem so ridiculous.
But there are other equally concerned parents who can’t migrate, perhaps because they do not meet countries’ strict visa requirements or because they do not see it as a realistic option.
Families’ only other option, and one that is often practised in India, is to curtail the movements of their girls and restrict their access to opportunities in the name of “protection”.
This includes preventing them from going to school or moving out to a college far from home, stopping them wearing western clothes such as jeans and using mobile phones, or even forcing them into marriage before the legal age of 18.
But are they really helping their daughters or hindering them?
LURED WITH CHOCOLATE
A report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights last month said 48,338 child rape cases were recorded in India from 2001 to 2011, and that the number rose 336 percent from the first of those years to the last.
“These are only the tip of the iceberg as the large majority of child rape cases are not reported to the police while children regularly become victims of other forms of sexual assault too,” stated the report, citing figures from the National Crime Records Bureau.
The Delhi gang rape and ensuing protests opened up a Pandora’s Box of crimes against women in India, not only stirring national debate in the media but also pressurising the government to make a slew of promises and pledges to tackle crimes against women and girls.
The news reports keep coming, a few prompting public protests but most featuring as just a footnote in the local papers.
Just last month, a four-year-old girl in central India died after two men allegedly used chocolate to lure her from where she was playing outside her village home and raped her.
In another incident in April, a five-year-old girl in New Delhi was tortured and raped by her neighbour. Doctors said a candle and part of a bottle had been inserted inside her during the assault.
The case sparked protests against the police after allegations that officers tried to bribe the victim’s family with 2,000 rupees not to file a complaint, and after video footage showed another officer slapping a female demonstrator.
What is clear from the spate of reports of sexual attacks is the persistent vulnerability of girls and women in India.
Last week, six village councils in northern Haryana state declared that some 400 teenage girlswould no longer attend school after reports that local youths were harassing some girls on their way home.
Taking girls out of school so as to protect them is not new in rural India.
For decades, the education of girls in India has been impeded, with many rural girls pulled out of school when they reach adolescence and forced to marry as child brides – as if marrying them off would stop them receiving unwanted attention from other men.
In some villages, girls have been banned from carrying mobiles and wearing jeans by village leaders who believe this will stop them attracting and mingling with unsavoury men.
In towns and cities, parents protect their daughters in another way – by curtailing their movements and restricting their freedom – now more than ever..
Parents I have spoken to – from auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers to shopkeepers and doctors – are considering measures that will affect their daughters’ future.
“My daughter is now turning 15 and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want her to stay in Delhi because it is so dangerous now and I have been thinking about sending her back to my village to stay with my parents,” one father told me. “She can go to school there.”
Other middle-class urban families say safety concerns have made them re-evaluate which college to send their daughters to – preferring universities closer to home, rather than giving the young women the opportunity to be more independent in another city.
Singh, who hopes to be in Australia by the end of the year, does not believe in placing restrictions on girls. “Restricting them is not the answer. I want my daughter to have freedom and she can have that in Australia more than here in India,” he says.
“When she is older I would even have no problem if she wants to go to a nude beach in Melbourne, but I would if it was in India. That’s the difference.”
PHOTO CAPTION: A student prays during a vigil for a gang rape victim, who was assaulted in New Delhi, in Ahmedabad December 31, 2012. One of hundreds of attacks reported in New Delhi each year, the gang rape and murder of a medical student caught Indian authorities and political parties flat-footed, slow to see that the assault on a private bus had come to symbolize an epidemic of crime against women. REUTERS/Amit Dave